Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In high school, our teachers had us conduct a torturous procedure they called ‘critical’ or ‘active’ reading. We had to summarize the plot on each page, highlight literary devices, and make our own observational notes until the books were no longer recognizable.
Back when we just thought of ourselves as ‘readers’, it could seem like a pointless, hateful slog. Of course, now that we’re ‘writers’, critical reading is crucial research. Thankfully, though, that doesn’t mean it has to be torture. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at the benefits of critical reading and how to approach it as a far less stressful, far more rewarding, experience.
1. Be an emotion detective
Emotion is what pulls a reader in and gets them lost in a story. Fear, happiness, sadness, suspense, anger, humor – the tools are many, but the impact is the same. A book that triggers emotions is a book that grips. Discerning what emotion a book or passage evokes may be a good tool to use in multiple-round readings. Enjoy a book the first time through, only briefly marking what you feel on each page or in each chapter. Then revisit your emotion notes and read each section carefully, looking for literary devices, vocabulary choices, and the different rhythms that contribute to driving that emotion.
2. Make a blueprint
Using note cards, highlighters, or some other physical flag, map out the cadence-relationships in the book: plot and scene, past and present, character and action, showing and telling. This practice replaces vague notions with a concrete diagram detailing how much space is spent on what. What’s summarized and what’s dramatized? Where are the breaks in tension or contrasting emotions that offer reprieve? How often does the protagonist interact with each other character? Check, too, for frequency of emotion in conjunction with your observations from #1. How often do you experience disgust? Is it too often? In a sad book, is there enough beauty to make the sadness tolerable?
You can even use the techniques I described in The Color-Coding Technique That Will Save Your Writing to help create a ‘map’ of your experience.
[John McPhee] seems to pour a whole novel’s worth of creative energy just into settling which bits will follow which other bits.
– Sam Anderson
3. What’s missing?
Look for words, phrases, and sentence structures that you’re partial to. You may find they’re affirmed in several successful books, or you may find they’re almost entirely absent. Use a highlighter or (to preserve the integrity of the physical book) a running list of adjectives and adverbs. Consider how (in)frequently they appear, which ones are used, and why. Watch for introductory phrases and throwaway phrases like ‘started to’ or other intermediary actions. Are they well-chosen or disruptive?Critical reading means looking for what’s missing as well as what’s present.Click To Tweet
You can segment a book by scene and check how long the author takes to convey that scene, then compare to your own work. Are your scenes longer or shorter? What superfluous language or ideas might you be able to trim?
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.
– Stephen King
4. Look for literary device patterns
Scrutinize the author’s use of literary mechanisms: repeating images, metaphor, foreshadowing – all the checkpoints from 12th-grade English. Some mechanisms are better suited to certain genres. For example, personification may work better in YA fiction. In particular, notice what authors tend to gravitate toward or away from.
You may find a trend away from metaphor and allusion in contemporary literature. Foreshadowing may be subtle and infrequent. Imagery and vivid, blunt syntax will stand out as part of the more efficient, down-to-earth style of the 21st century. Conversely, some books may read too dry. Ask how a little symbolism or poetry could have spiced things up.
5. Pay attention to surprise and offense
Pay attention to the element of surprise. Why does it work? What plot elements and characterizations made you believe something that turned out to be false? In what ways is the surprise still believable? How often are you surprised? Is it too much or too little, or did the author nail it? This question also works well with the feeling of offense. When you’re offended, try to decide if the result is repulsive or spellbinding.
Every time a work of fiction surprises you, write down how it did so – you’re not just learning tricks, you’re learning the tricks you didn’t see coming.
6. Trace the plot-path
Where are the benchmarks that define the plot direction? Literally: what pages are they on? How far into the book do we have a sense of what the protagonist wants? When do their challenges arise and when do they find respite? How close to the end can the reader sense the end? Where does the story end in relation to the back cover? Is it too abrupt, too draggy, or just right? Go back to the beginning: ask whether it works and why.
If you ever find yourself skimming or thinking ‘who cares?’ take especially thorough notes on the sections that made you feel that way. What would you cut? Why don’t you care? If your gut-answer is ‘because it’s boring’, look again. Why is it boring? What goes on too long? What’s too predictable? You can even look at the arrangement of sentences within a paragraph. Where does the most important information tend to fall? What about foreshadowing or repeating ideas?
Remember, the idea isn’t to figure out one ‘good’ way of writing, but to test your instincts and ideas against a real, complete work. Check out Why Writers Like You Need To Know Their Key Event From Their First Plot Point for an idea of what a ‘default’ plot structure might look like.
Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion – that’s Plot.
– Leigh Brackett
7. Ask who’s calling the shots
A useful tool for character development is distribution of decision-making power. Typically, the onus falls on the protagonist and antagonist, but key decisions made by supporting characters also help define their relationships and their place in the story.
This sense of being able to make decisions is often referred to as ‘agency’ – ask who has agency in a story, who doesn’t, and how that affects the form the story takes. Often, you’ll realize that a character’s death/triumph wasn’t as powerful as it could have been because they weren’t really steering the story anyway.Look for agency in a story. Often, it’s the key to understanding great and terrible moments.Click To Tweet
You cannot have an effective protagonist who simply responds to events happening around him or her. Your protagonist must act, not just react.
– Rachelle Gardner
8. Observe relationships
Put on your psychologist hat and diagnose the relationships between characters. Are they believable? What makes them so? What impact do relationships have on the plot? Are they a hindrance or boon, a source of tension or relief?
Interrelation is a great way to look at characters because it treats them as both individuals and parts of a whole. Some characters can be amazing, but if they stop the reader registering anything else that happens, you’ve also found a potential problem. Check out Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device for more on character relationships.
If you can create a key moment in the novel where something special or intense or important passes between the protagonist and this secondary character, it will do wonders for your story. So many moving, poignant scenes in movies are ones where the two friends have a moment like this. It feels sometimes like a beat or pause in the story, being more reflective and slower paced. But it adds heart, and that’s what this is all about.
– CS Lakin
9. Keep an open mind
Whether you like a book or not, open yourself up to the opposite point of view. Allow yourself to be a positive critic of books you dislike. Ask (sincerely, not sarcastically) why they succeeded. With books you idolize, recognize the author as an imperfect human and therefore imperfect writer (excepting perhaps Mark Twain) and look for flaws. The idea isn’t to become unduly optimistic or pessimistic; it’s to take a critical stance in the truest sense of the word: scrutinizing a text to determine what works and what doesn’t.Learn to be a positive, critical reader of books you dislike.Click To Tweet
The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.
– Christopher Hitchens
10. Never lose your love for reading
However you choose to apply the critical reading advice above, keep the passion alive in your relationship with reading. You’ll have to determine what this looks like for you. Maybe you…
- Read a book for pleasure once, then a second time for learning,
- Take lengthy breaks from critical reading to relax and enjoy,
- Actively engage a paragraph or so from each chapter, then coast through the rest,
- Choose some combination of all of the above.
The important thing is that at least some of your reading is actively intended to improve your craft.You can learn a lot about writing through osmosis, but far more through critical reading.Click To Tweet
Ask lots of questions
The best way to read with a critical eye is to ask questions. Answer from your gut, set that first response aside, and ask again. Be inquisitive about every sentence, word, section, and scene. Look even at the ratio between vowels and consonants, the distribution of punctuation, the division of chapters. And when you have exhausted yourself of questions, look up from the book, take a long, slow breath, return to the book… and ask nothing of it at all.
How do you approach critical reading to improve your writing? Tell me your tricks in the comments, and check out What ‘17776’ Can Tell You About Improving Your Craft and How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words for more great advice on this topic.